The Conflict is Now

There is a problem at the heart of American politics, and its name is imagination. With the publication of Imagined Communities in 1983, Benedict Anderson changed the way many scholars understand modern nationalism by arguing that what allows us to live in nations of millions of people we will never meet is a plethora of imaginary connections enhanced by commonalities (like language, newspapers, regimented time). Today, in the age of algorithmically enhanced outrage and hyperpolarization, we seem to expend much more mental effort in imagining our ideological others as illegitimate people, or ‘enemies’, than we do in seeing the connections that make us neighbors and fellow members of society. That is, membership in the American ‘nation’ is determined on all sides not as including all inhabitants of the physical space of the United States, but rather as adherents to a chosen ideology (and the political opponent is presented as an existential threat to the “real” values of the nation). The nation-state always requires the conceptualization of an imagined, cohesive ‘people’ to legitimize itself, hence leaving problematic and often violent exclusions in the wake of its very founding. Therefore, we must be ever vigilant about how our public, conflictual discourse and behavior may further shore up repressive state power. We seem trapped in a way of thinking of collectivities not as complexly human, but rather as wholly ‘good’ (in the case of the ‘us’) and the wholly ‘evil’ (in the case of the ‘them’). Such binary thinking can and does lead to further partisan extremism, including political violence, and a growth in the authoritarian nature of the state.

Of course, such rhetoric is nothing new, as we can recall Reagan’s descriptor of the “evil empire” or Bush’s “axis of evil”, or hundreds of other such declarations about the “evils” of drugs, poverty, crime, etc. But ‘evil’ has become the assumed position of any ideological opponent in recent years, as the culture developed by both political parties, their demagogues, and their aligned corporate and media entities has been to present either ‘red’ or ‘blue’ (people, speech, books, etc.) as evil to be disallowed and overcome. Even non-partisans in the U.S. can now feel themselves drawn into these party debates as instances like vaccine mandates require them to take a partisan position in spite of themselves. There are some issues, in other words, that are so overwhelming politicized that they are difficult for anyone to ignore or remain ‘neutral’ on.

One of the most shocking aspects of the January 6th, 2021 event is that, in contradistinction to nearly all dealings with mass protest, the state had so profoundly failed to protect itself, demonstrating law enforcement’s sympathies with hardcore right extremism in real time. Indeed, the state has consistently shown itself to brutalize protesters, most recently those from Black Lives Matter and labor movements, and so such a failure is especially striking given the optics and reality of preferential treatment for largely white, largely male, largely middle-aged crowds. It is unlikely that the state will lapse in this way again (recall the military occupation of Washington D.C. that followed January 6th) and is likely to take extreme measures to secure itself against anything resembling that attack. Especially since the 1960s, and intensified exponentially after 9/11/2001, the government has long used the paradigm of counter-revolution (or domestic warfare) against its own citizens in the name of national security. The violence that is consistently cause for alarm in the halls of government and media, however, is not that perpetrated by the state on its own citizenry, but extra-legal, inter-personal acts. These acts do not constitute a ‘civil war’ in the sense often imagined by the public, but rather as simmering conflict in which both the state and the public are often targeted in coordinated but ‘random’ attacks. Extra-state violence is most likely to proceed in more disjointed, seemingly random acts, not because mass mobilization has been defeated or delegitimized, but out of a tactical consideration.

In other words, this unofficial, non-state political violence that we continue to experience can be conceptualized as a conflict, not as a traditional war (i.e., in terms of combating armies), but rather as modeled on insurgency. In brief, the hardcore right has realized for decades that that the very idea of the ‘lone wolf’ terrorist works to their advantage. For while people of color generally (and Muslims and immigrants in particular) are consistently held up as exemplars of their group identity, white people are represented and maintained as individuals. Therefore, the supremacy baked into the corporate state system allows coordinated terror activity to be obscured through its being considered and reported as the ‘lone actor’ (who is usually scrutinized in ways that marginalize and demonize people with mental illness) rather than the reality in which nearly all such ‘lone’ actors have connections to organized groups. As scholar of the white power movement Kathleen Belew has convincingly argued, the classic descriptor ‘lone wolf’ does not exist in this context. Even a cursory search online at hate inspired attacks bears out the starkness of the problem, the largeness of which easily demonstrates the propagandistic framing and value of the fictional yet consistently supposed ‘lone’ gunman or bomb maker. The ‘lone wolf’ trope also helps to legitimize groups whose official, public position is to condemn such violent acts while actively encouraging them in other contexts.

Much has been made of recent polls demonstrating beliefs held by both the hardcore and mainstream right, most especially in the political aftermath of January 6th, with the consensus conclusion being that a coup attempt was narrowly thwarted. But the 6th should also be viewed as performance art just as much as an earnest display of belief, in so far as many of the groups represented in the rotunda that day have used the event to spark interest, gain recruitment, and further radicalize adherents—including those active and formerly active in police and the military. Robert Pape’s poll has been among the most widely circulated, and indeed is alarming if taken at face value, for it indicates millions of Americans believe in the election outcome lie, Qanon, and that the U.S. is indeed headed for civil war. In a January 27th Guardian piece, Musa al-Ghardi unpacks the actual ‘beliefs’ of many on the hardcore right and concludes that often beliefs in such things as ‘the big lie’ are more about posturing against power than deeply held conviction. This is surely correct, for indeed ‘trolling’ techniques (including, ostensibly the trolling of pollsters) are among the favorite tools of the hardcore right, most especially online. Many expressions of the most extreme beliefs currently circulating in the U.S. polity certainly appear to be more about demonstrating which ‘side’ or ‘team’ one is on much more than sincerity. al-Ghardi is also convincing in arguing that we shouldn’t misunderstand the number of people who respond that a civil war is likely as somehow reflecting similar numbers of folks who would actually arm themselves to participate in political violence. And, of course, the question never posed is how many people actually want such a conflict. But even if al-Ghardi is correct and the percentage of Americans who hold extreme hardcore right beliefs and support political violence may indeed be lower than many polls suggest, even single-digit percentages of support translate into millions of activated people. Yet, there is also a deeper commitment here than he recognizes. That is, if viewed from the perspective of religious adherence, then the absurdity of a belief should be seen as an asset of a movement rather than a liability, and the hardcore right additionally recognizes that their movement needs only a tiny number of zealous adherents to disproportionately impact the political. Cults never require huge numbers of followers.

The chorus of commentators discussing U.S. politics in terms of ‘tribalism’ has gravely mis-stepped in this framing. The most obvious issue with this framing is that it rhetorically racializes (and perhaps attempt to naturalize) differences by implying that ‘tribes’ of people are forever in mutual conflict. But describing politics as ‘tribal’ also has the effect of de-legitimizing the actual political struggles of actual tribal peoples in the world at the precise time in which hugely important conflicts over land and other resources are occurring in, around, and to such communities. Rather than conceptualizing our contemporary politics as tribal, therefore, I propose that we view through the lens of the sacred; U.S. politics has become cultic. The incessant use of sacralized language by political leaders and followers alike has grown. And like cults, political organization now often revolves around the populistic charisma of the leader/guru who commands a religious devotion from a hardcore of supporters and a broadly sympathetic base, but who also keeps actual power and influence circulating in an ever-tightening tiny circle of elites from the aforementioned hardcore of true believers (and their corporate backers).

Party politics also now seems to inherently contain the belief that the in-group is always right (even and especially when it’s wrong), another central characteristic of cults. While this is most obvious on the right, leftist groups (for instance, the recent development of anti-fascist activists from a loosely organized movement to actual coalesced militant organizations) have also been guilty of accepting this binary framing, taking the bait and self-presenting as righteous (or the good) against the profane (evil) of fascism. The ideology of fascism indeed holds many, many objectionable, offensive, and violent beliefs and tendencies that should be condemned, but this still isn’t sufficient to ad hominem labeling all members of the right as ‘evil’, ‘deplorable,’ ‘ignorant’, or ‘stupid.’ Such beliefs and aspects of the left may indeed present as cultic as well. This doesn’t imply an equivalency of violence, which doesn’t exist, and the hardcore right has consistently been the most radically engaged domestic extremists (in terms of recruitment numbers and lethal and non-lethal attacks) in the U.S. for decades.

The current insurgency comes from the hardcore right. There are so many different groups that make up this active organization (with many preferring labels like ‘alt-right’, ‘Christian Dominions/Evangelical’, ‘III%’, ‘patriot’ groups, and on and on), however, that a quick note on terminology is needed. I am calling this constellation of anti-state, and anti-everyone-not-us ‘hardcore’ right groups for one primary reason. A certain small percentage of many cultures become what we can ‘hardcore.’ Typically, this label becomes self-applied when the cultural norms or ideals of the cultural group identified with when said ideals become a ‘way of life.’ One becomes a ‘hardcore’ vegan, gamer, punk rocker, sports or movie franchise fan, hobbyist/enthusiast, etc. when the particular realm of activity in question goes far beyond an aesthetic or cultural affinity and indeed becomes a central part of one’s identity. The hardcore right in the U.S. qualifies under this definition, in providing not only a purpose and meaning for the people they radicalize, but a core identity. Though this may include an overall tiny proportion of the population, such a fact should not lead us to smugly dismiss the suffering that such small numbers could affect. Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh, themselves hardcore right-wing activists, were only two men who destroyed hundreds of lives nearly 30 years ago now in Oklahoma City. And it only took 19 extremists to fundamentally change America society and the nature of the state in 2001. Insurgency (and its accompanying crisis of sovereignty) shouldn’t be underestimated, as the U.S. military might have learned in its decades-long crusade to occupy and dominate strongholds in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Religious insurgency in the former is remarkably close in tactic and aesthetic to the hardcore right insurgency in the U.S. today.

The consistent aesthetic of the largest swathes of the new hardcore right (militant boys’ clubs, militias and para-military organizations, supremacists, Christian nationalism, and Qanon) is one of holy war. These holy warriors view themselves as locked in existential conflict with the forces of ‘darkness’ and ‘evil.’ If we take the aesthetic of the holy warrior seriously, however, we come to a conclusion about the ‘lone wolf’ insurgency tactic. The true believer in a cause (of which the holy warrior is a type) isn’t posturing and often can’t be stopped even by the most sophisticated of police state mechanisms (which the state, of course, knows). This is because the true believer views any means as justified for their righteous end. When one believes oneself to be fighting evil, the thinking goes, anything is permitted. As we have witnessed, this can include attacks on free expression and discourse, public education, and factuality itself just as much as physically attacking ideological opponents. The sacredness of their charge is seen in a facile way in the progression of Trumpist campaign slogans, increasing in severity from “Make America Great Again” to now “Save America.” Joe Biden sounds very similar in his long adopted the language of the “soul of America”, for example, while conserving institutions, expanding militarism, and increasing the strength of institutions over people’s lives.

Most alarming is the contradiction at the center of what the two major parties seem to be attempting politically, which is the expansion of authoritarian state strategies in the name of anti-authoritarianism. The universal goal, that is, seems to be to seize the reigns of the state in order to direct its most Draconian tools and weaponry against the ‘other side.’ Civil conflicts, whether perpetrated by the radical right or left (and most especially in the aftermath of street battles between the two), tends to lead to an increase in the police and surveillance aspects of the state, and bipartisan repression of activists. On the right, this is paradoxically experienced as the very people who have the most individualistic understanding of ‘freedom’ wish to pull no punches on imposing their beliefs, definitions, and preferred governing styles upon everyone else. But the crucial point is also that the amount of violence likely isn’t increasing at all, but rather is gaining in notoriety due to its spectacular qualities. The very foundation of the state itself is violence (and the constant threat of violence), most often perpetrated against people of color. For just the most blatant example, millions of families can attest, for example, not only to the violence done by the state internationally (in terms of military ‘collateral’ damage), but also the brutalization of policing and prisons domestically. State violence has, in the liberal American order, been used to determine the in/out groupings of society, and it should be no surprise that they are using the sensationalized violence of non-state actors to further shore up their monopoly on legitimacy. Terror strikes the imagination by defying these accepted, normative modes of violence, and the thinking goes, the more spectacular the occurrence the more effective it proves to be. But looking backward over the last four decades, one can also see the pattern of sensationalized, spectacular violence emerging and growing in prominence on the hardcore right, despite whatever cover they provide themselves with appeals to the founding documents of the republic.

Already half a century ago, Hannah Arendt discovered an often ignored but monumental rhetorical twist in the opening lines to the Declaration of Independence. That is, the key word in stating, “We hold these truths to be self-evident” is the emphasized ‘hold’, as here Jefferson slips into opinion despite the insistence otherwise. The act of holding necessarily means that these truths are in fact not self-evident but merely opinion. That does not mean that they are not powerful, nor that they are not, theoretically at least, aspirational when we think in terms of an effort to establish the only freedom worthy of the name since the time of ancient Athens—the freedom among equals. Athens, however, was also a slave society who only included Athenian men of property among its politically ‘equal’ class. Even in the oft romanticized origin of ‘democracy’, equal wasn’t inclusive and the demos excluded most people. The constant struggle seems to be in expanding the notion of equality in the political, a struggle the U.S. has never fully dealt with.


But if we aspire toward the mythologized ‘more perfect union’ so celebrated in so many quarters, this means that we must continually choose to adopt, reaffirm, and shift ever towards equity in our ideas of equality. Centuries of American conflict have centered around disagreements about who is worthy or unworthy of this fellowship of equals, a discussion now carried on by individual arguments primarily formed not by legal scholarship, humane obligation, or even deep contemplation, but rather by the framing of corporate, data, and state institutions that have effectively hacked into our collective consciousness. Surely, there are ways to recognize and resist the corporate, algorithmic, state, and political manufacturing of dissent, but this is also likely to present such difficulty precisely because of the pre-formed and exploited judgments so many already hold about their fellow country people.

To overcome the tendency for algorithms (written in binary) to produce or reinforce binary us/them, good/evil judgments presents as the gravest challenge in contemporary politics. Escaping such moralizing binary divisions requires empathy, understanding, and a relentless pursuit of commonality and compassion over coercion and condemnation from each of us, regardless of our own preferred ideological, cultural, or religious ideations. There is also a strikingly hopeful aspect to Pape’s poll which has largely gone unreported, that is, the overwhelming support respondents show towards their local governance. American people have a tendency, it seems, to trust what they see and who they know. We need to somehow reintroduce each other to ourselves and foster a more generous spirit (ie. for instance, in learning to actually and actively listen, rather than only ‘listening’ in order to find something to critique or attack). Recent years have certainly underlined the need for cooperation, as issues ranging from Covid to policing to climate require widescale collective action.


We need to stop judging ourselves and each other in such stark terms as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in order to get beyond the us/them thinking that is driving not only division but also inter-societal, extra-state violence. This also means, for instance, more generous considerations for protestors that we disagree with, as opposed to the rush to incarcerate (or in more extreme instances, to eliminate) actors from the ‘other side.’ As Kees van den Bos and other scholars of radicalization have shown, perceptions of unfairness are consistently the driving factor towards extremism. The strange position we find ourselves in, in the current era in which many can find a platform in the digital domain, is that a fundamental ‘unfairness’ is perceived when folks view themselves as unable to speak and be heard, a complaint made absurd when expressed by the most powerful political leaders in the country. The reality, of course, is that there ismonumental unfairness in the techno-feudal, neo-liberal, corporate governance landscape. To address these common, fundamentally unfair economic and governmental practices and exclusions, we must first stop attacking one another in the name of who we think should rule us.

To get “beyond good and evil” (to borrow Nietzsche’s phraseology) in the way I am proposing is to take a step back from judgement in order to stop assigning such labels to ourselves and others. This is a challenge many people are engaged in, even with members of their own families with whom they disagree. Even at the most basic level of inter-personal communication, a slight shift can mean adopting a more generous stance; away from defining the interlocutor in their inner being and focusing on the objectionable points they raise in a respectful and engaged exercise. My students, for instance, are encouraged to object to statements, beliefs, and ideas, and to have conversations about their objections, but not to simply declare another student to be this or that ___ist. Students are often quite inspiring when they can transition from declaring “you’re racist!” to opening a real conversation with “I find that comment to be racist for the following reasons…” It is a subtle but often meaningful distinction, as the latter invites more people into the conversation, while the former makes an immediate and exclusionary judgment. Such a simple, easy tactic can lower the temperature just enough to allow disagreement without disrespect. This also often allows the space to then discuss the structural aspects of an issue like racism, rather than viewing such an ideology at the strictly individual level of beliefs. As politics is about accommodating how we disagree, allowing the intellectual and practical space for those disagreements to be heard and unpacked is essential. This also often has the effect of engaging people where they are, perhaps as much as developing deliberate, and even democratized, listening practices. It also allows the space for redeemability and reconciliation.

Such techniques could also reframe discusses on who the ‘enemy’ is, i.e., in terms of finding coherent connections in struggles against state tyranny. The hardcore right has for years obsessed about what’s known as the ‘Overton window’, i.e. or that which is framed within said window as the limits to legitimate political discourse. It is debatable whether they have succeeded in ‘making’ more people racist or authoritarian, but it is undeniable that they have succeeded in pushing political discourse firmly in the direction of Carl Schmitt’s ‘friend/enemy’ distinction. If we can’t even interact with those who differ from us in ideal and identity, even on a basic, individual level, then how can we ever hope to approach structural racism and authoritarian policing, the economic and climate catastrophes of neoliberalism, and the domination of corporate and state structures of power in America society? If cooperation and compromise are deemed a priori impossible, what options would this leave us for collective action? Clearly, to encounter the hardcore right and/or to pursue systemic change requires us to move far beyond empty platitudes of ‘love conquering hate’ or ‘going high when they go low’ and towards efforts to de-radicalize the right-wing holy warriors. The challenge presents yet again as the longstanding struggle for mutual recognition of humanity and reconciliation. Reconciliation at all levels seems not only an ideal, but also a necessary goal, the first step towards which might be to stop viewing other individuals as ‘enemies’ and begin to see the strengths of difference and diversity in moving us towards more inclusive and democratic norms. How can we get beyond manufactured dissent in which our differences are exploited to obscure how close most of us actually are, in terms of wanting the most basic things like clean food, air, and water; safe shelter; dignity, wellness, and fair access to the tools for building a meaningful and fulfilling life?

We may wish to take a step towards seeing no “doer behind the deed”, which is another way of stating that we cannot judge one’s inner being, but only their deeds, which could be an important first step, i.e., in judging actions not people. A deed can certainly be defined as harmful or inhumane, a fellow human being should never be. We need to rehabilitate the social, for we must recognize that as human beings, we can only truly and completely be when we are being together.

Andrew J. Wood is a community college professor in the Bay Area, seeker, artist, and volunteer at San Quentin State Prison.